The 2020 election aftermath reveals that on one side of the party stands a handful of conservatives and moderates who willingly recognize objective reality. They defend democracy and the sanctity of elections. They believe Republicans’ grievances are heartfelt and reasonable, amenable to rational solutions. They think of government as a defender of liberty, which is one side of a transactional relationship with its citizens. By its very nature, conservatism imagines that government does not subsume civil society nor define one’s identity. Their diagnosis of America’s ills might be off-base and even tone-deaf, neglecting the legacy of racism and clinging to the fallacy of supply-side economics, but these are well-meaning and generally sincere figures.
However, the election reveals that a far greater number of Republican elected officials, the right-wing media, a good number of previously respectable think tanks and millions of Americans are no longer willing to operate within the confines of democracy, which demands recognition of easily ascertained facts. They seem to think of politics as either cynical entertainment or group therapy, in which the leaders and their media consorts orchestrate rage, resentment and paranoia. Politics is about identity, mostly negative (not socialist, not multiracial, not secular), and hence about their followers’ survival.
In that mind-set, reality must be twisted, deformed or ignored to provide fodder for the symbiotic relationship between the rage machine and the enraged. The defining question for political self-promoters of this ilk — usually well-educated beneficiaries of the very liberal democracy and multiracial society they rail against — is not what ideas they can advance or what problems they can address, but how they can cultivate a codependent relationship with Americans willing (anxious, even) to be infuriated and enlisted into a tribe of the resentful.
Not unlike European far-right populist and authoritarian leaders, this genre of Republicans operates in the world of lies and conspiracies, fanning antagonism toward expertise and a free press. They will propound anything, no matter how objectively inane, if it serves their purpose of emotional manipulation. This cultlike operation requires a propaganda machine able to block out reality and produce material for familiar tropes (e.g., loss of “their” history, obliteration of traditional values, decline of Christianity, “replacement” by immigrants). The machine can be manned by dimwitted true believers or by moguls who found a lucrative niche in the media ecosphere.
We should stop talking about a civil war within a traditional political party. This is about a battle between the party’s democratic (small-"d") defenders of multiracial self-government and proponents of blood-and-soil authoritarianism, between practitioners of problem-solving politics and leaders of mass psychosis. One side (the Reality Caucus) is within the framework of constitutional, rule-bound democracy, and one is outside it, more akin to France’s National Rally (formerly the National Front) or Germany’s AfD and leaders such as Viktor Orban of Hungary, Andrzej Duda of Poland and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. Call this the Right-wing Nationalist party.
Not a few weak-kneed Republicans recognize the folly of the anti-democratic grifters who would lead the party out of democratic, truth-based politics. These figures think they can humor Right-wing Nationalists or wait them out. The spineless Republicans would do well to recognize they cannot coexist with those who refuse to operate in the real world and adhere to the dictates of democracy.
The shrinking group of Reality Caucus members has several options: 1) Take on the Right-wing Nationalists and the right-wing media machine that sustains them; 2) find common cause with moderate Democrats in defense of constitutional democracy and make deals on a case-by-case basis; or 3) break off entirely from the Right-wing Nationalists, re-embrace the Party of Lincoln and of Teddy Roosevelt, risk time in the political wilderness, hope Democrats overreach and work on a truth-based alternative to the progressive agenda.
What the Reality Caucus can no longer do is pretend that they have an overlapping vision or shared values with the Right-wing Nationalists — the cultists, the white supremacists and the purveyors of nonstop lies. The longer the Reality Caucus members fool themselves and remain in an alliance with Right-wing Nationalists, the more they enable and empower the latter, further fraying the fabric of constitutional government. It is time for the Reality Caucus to make a decision and choose its strategy. The status quo is unsustainable.